Winter Solstice: Mourning the Dark, Celebrating the Light

Winter Solstice: Mourning the Dark, Celebrating the Light December 17, 2023

You know that feeling you get on the last full day of vacation?

Maybe you went somewhere and tomorrow you have to fly or drive home. Or maybe you stayed home and tomorrow you have to go back to work or school. You’ve still got today to enjoy, but it’s a bittersweet feeling knowing that what you looked forward to for months and have enjoyed for days is coming to an end.

That’s how I feel at the Winter Solstice.

photo by John Beckett

This year I’ve been rather open with my feelings about the seasons. August is the worst month. October is the best month. December is also a good month, but after December comes January, with the worst of the cold and no work holidays between MLK Day and Memorial Day. I like taking vacations in the early Spring in part because the crowds and the prices are better than in the Summer. But I also like taking vacations in the early Spring because it breaks up that 19 week stretch of blandness and work.

Make no mistake – December is a very good month. Here in Texas the weather is pleasantly cool – and occasionally cold – but rarely disruptive. By combining a few days of vacation with weekends and holidays I get a long break from work – this year I get the full 12 Days of Solstice (my sympathies to those who have to work, especially those who work retail). I’m mostly able to ignore the lunacy that is modern American Christmas, but I can enjoy the parts I like.

Humanity’s oldest holy day

And I do love the Winter Solstice. It is older than Christmas and Hanukkah and the other Winter holidays – it is likely humanity’s oldest holy day. Someday I would love to celebrate it at Newgrange or Stonehenge… or with the Anglesey Druids at Bryn Celli Ddu, but I’m happy to celebrate it each year with my friends and co-religionists at Denton CUUPS. Whatever else it may be, Winter Solstice is an astronomical event that happens everywhere on Earth.

December is a good month and the Winter Solstice is a wonderful, magical time. But it still feels like the last day of vacation.

I like the shorter days and longer nights of this season. I like driving home from work with my headlights on instead of my sunglasses even though I didn’t work late. I know I might feel differently if I lived farther north and only had a few hours of sunlight each day, but I don’t. I won’t need sunglasses on my way home till around Imbolc, but after the Solstice the days will start getting longer.

So I’m going to take a few moments on the Winter Solstice to revel in the last of our annual descent into the dark, and to mourn its end.

The return of the light

But at its core, the Winter Solstice is a celebration of the light. A line from a Lughnasadh ritual says “if the Sun does not die, the Earth will burn dry.” I’m not going to try to write a matching rhyme, but this time of year we understand that if the Sun is not reborn, the Earth will freeze and die. At some point even I would get tired of the dark. For all my love of vampire stories, I am very much a human who needs the Sun.

And so this year, as every year, we gather around the Solstice or we take a moment alone on the Solstice or we do both. Like the Sun at the Solstice (the word solstice literally means “sun stands still”) we pause from our work and our comings and goings. We give thanks for the dying year and all it brought, both good and ill. We experience the dark and we appreciate the restfulness it brings.

And then we light our candles.

We know the science of the Solstice – we know the Sun will always return. So did our ancient ancestors, who had the same brain capacity and powers of observation that we do. The Sun does not need our help to return. But we need to remind ourselves that the Sun will return, this year and every year.

We mourn the dark as it departs, and we celebrate the light as it returns.

Hail to the Sun at the Winter Solstice. You rise on the southern horizon, low and faint, but bringing with you the promise of Spring and rebirth. You will grow strong and bright and the days will lengthen once again. As the Sun is reborn, so too are our hopes and dreams. Blessed be the Sun – blessed be the Solstice!

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